Smarter, better, faster, less expensive — those words are the mantra of today’s global economy. As organizations seek to streamline operations and do more with less, they increasingly focus on automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and similar vehicles to help get the job done. By 2022, analysts expect the global AGV market sector alone to hit $2.65 billion. To meet demand, OEMs will need traction technologies that perform unquestionably while remaining rugged, economical, and easy to install and maintain. Electric traction solutions deliver on all counts.

As in most aspects of engineering, there is no single ideal solution. Options include brush DC motors, brushless DC motors, stepper motors, and AC synchronous or asynchronous (induction) motors. In this article, we will review the special requirements of traction applications and discuss the categories of electric traction solutions with a focus on the pros and cons of each.

Understanding the Application

Choosing the best traction or steering solution for a logistics vehicle or mobile robot starts with a detailed review of the requirements. For the types of specialty vehicle applications described above there are some special nuances.

Load: The load for an industrial vehicle includes both the weight of the unit load and the weight of the vehicle itself. These vehicles are typically supported on some combination of active wheels (drive wheels) and passive wheels (casters). Choosing the right traction solution requires understanding how the weight of the vehicle and load will be shared among the drive wheels and casters. This distribution may change, depending on whether the vehicle is loaded or unloaded.

Wheels and operating surface: In addition to determining the number and location of drive wheels and casters, OEMs need to analyze the characteristics of the wheel’s tire, the operating surface, and the interface between them. A vehicle with a narrow, slick tire running on a smooth surface will need to generate considerably less torque to achieve a desired performance than one with a wide tire running on loose gravel, for example.

Turning radius: The required turning radius of the vehicle has a direct impact on vehicle design and the characteristics of the traction actuators. Also, the clearance available for the wheels can limit wheel diameter, which in turn affects the wheel-drive motor speed and torque required.

Peak torque and average torque: Peak torque is calculated using the acceleration and friction torques required for the application. Actuators need to be sized to the worst-case scenario, taking into consideration factors like incline and rolling friction (surface texture, tire material, bearing friction, etc.) but mostly the inertia of the loaded vehicle. The motor needs to be sized to generate the breakaway torque required to get the vehicle moving but also sufficient running torque, or average torque to keep it traveling at constant speed.

Braking and holding torque: It is essential to know the requirements for static and dynamic performance, both in a power on and power off condition. Does the vehicle need emergency stop capabilities? Does a holding brake need to be applied; for example, in the event of power failure? Brakes for emergency stopping and holding while stopped are sized differently.

Power source: Is the vehicle battery-operated or is it fed from a generator? What are the voltage rails of the system? Are there current limitations? What is the desired operating time per charge? The average power consumed by the vehicle is determined by the speed and acceleration profiles, and the duty cycle (frequency of vehicle starts and stops).

Environment: Will the vehicle be used inside, outside, or both? What is the operating temperature range? Will it be exposed to contaminants such as dust, moisture, or corrosive chemicals? What about salt spray?

Table 1. Comparison of motors for traction-wheel solutions.

Shock and vibration: The higher the operating speed, the greater the shock level introduced by collision and rough terrains. Uneven surfaces can introduce vibration, especially when traversed at high speeds. It is important to evaluate these factors, which can be surprisingly high. Some warehouse applications can subject equipment to shock loads of up to 80 g.

Electric Traction Solutions

Traction actuators provide motive power to the vehicle drive wheels (we won’t consider tracked vehicles in this article). The process of choosing the best solution for the application begins with the wheel motor. Key considerations include torque, speed, efficiency, and size (see Table 1). That said, the most common motor selections tend to be brush or brushless DC motors, and AC synchronous motors, with brushless motors increasing in popularity. Stepper motors are effective for very specific, low-power niche applications. AC induction motors are also used in wheel drives.

AGVs and other autonomous vehicles or mobile robots are most commonly driven by one or more independent powered wheels. We can divide powered-wheel traction solutions into two classes: discrete and integrated.

Discrete traction assemblies consist of a collection of individual components that are typically located away from the wheel itself (off-wheel designs). In an integrated design, the motion components are integrated into the wheel assembly itself, whether as part of an integrated package (on-wheel designs) or connected directly to the wheel (in-wheel designs). Let’s consider each class in detail.

Table 2. Comparison of off-wheel traction-wheel powertrains.

Off-wheel traction solutions. In an off-wheel traction solution, one or more electric motors transmits power to the drive wheels. Locating the motor away from the wheel assembly can provide useful degrees of freedom in the structural design of the vehicle.

Off-wheel traction solutions use a drivetrain to transfer power from the motor to the wheel. The most common drivetrains include belt and pulley, chain and sprocket, or gearbox and coupling. All three can be used to confer a mechanical advantage, decreasing the size and cost of the motor. As with the motors, the different types of drivetrains involve tradeoffs (see Table 2).

Depending on the cost of the drive-train, the architecture may lower cost of ownership. On the downside, adding a drivetrain increases complexity, maintenance, points of failure, and space claim. For best results, the options need to be carefully analyzed in the context of a given project.

Off-wheel designs offer several benefits. Without the constraint of building the motor into the wheel or directly adjacent, OEMs have greater ability to modify performance, size, and configuration. The choice of drivetrain adds another degree of design freedom. The distributed architecture makes it easier to add accessories such as encoders, holding brakes, and drives.

Off-wheel designs enable the motor, mechanical components, and electronics to be in protected areas of the vehicle. This location can reduce exposure to shock and contamination, increasing lifetime and reducing the chance of unplanned downtime.